Nation and State in the Middle East

Nationalism remains the fundamental organizing principle of the inter-state order, the ultimate source of political legitimacy and the taken-for-granted context of everyday life. Yet it is also true that a host of countervailing phenomena such as various forms of trans- or supra-nationalism and their mirror images, localism, regionalism and multiculturalism, and competing sources of collective identity, notably religion, have brought the nation and state nexus into sharper focus. This in turn has cast doubt on the usefulness of conventional notions of borders and sovereignty that have been largely shaped by ‘methodological nationalism’, or the pervasive tendency to equate the concept of ‘society with that of the ‘nation’, reifying the nation-state as the natural and necessary form of socio-political organisation in modernity.

The point of departure of this collaborative project is the belief that nationalism studies, a field which has come of age only in the second half of the twentieth century, is ill-equipped to theoretically comprehend this ‘double challenge’, i.e. the various challenges to the nation and the state as well as their resilience in the face of these conflicting dynamics. The aim of the project therefore is i. to address the limitations of the various debates on nation and the state; ii. to propose new conceptual and theoretical tools to make better sense of the evolving social and political developments in the contemporary Middle East where these trends and challenges are arguably most profoundly active.

The main proposition of this project is that the weakness and fragility of states such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, among others, the proliferation of non-state (Hizbollah), counter-state (Islamic State) and quasi-state actors (Rojava, KRG), some of which are active across existing borders and further afield in a transnational context, and the persistence of identities that are alternative to national ones such as the transnational ummah, or subnational, tribal or minority allegiances and bonds make it imperative and urgent to probe at alternative ways of conceptualising and organising political community. This would in turn enable us to reconsider the resilience of ‘the national’ and the extent to which it continues to limit alternative forms of imagining human collectivities.

The Collaboration

A corollary to this is the setting up of a joint research programme on the theme of “Nation and the State in the Middle East” that would involve The Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES), Lund University, The Middle East Center (MEC) at the LSE, The Middle East and North Africa Center (MENACS) at Sussex University and The Center for Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) at Qatar University College of Arts and Sciences.

The aim of this collaboration is to create a strong international, interdisciplinary research infrastructure that will generate innovative and provocative work in these areas. The programme will be based in the above-mentioned core institutions, but the engagement of a broader peripheral network will also be sought and encouraged.

In practical terms, it is envisaged that the planned programme will place emphasis on cross-fertilisation and debate through the mobility and connectivity of researchers and institutions (staff exchanges on a regular basis). The collaboration will also involve joint workshops organised by the four core institutions and other partners and stakeholders, joint research projects, joint publications/research reports/policy papers, and depending on the availability of funding the education of future researchers (through doctoral/postdoctoral appointments and summer schools).